What's Love Got to Do With It: The Purple Rose's comedy "Welcome to Paradise" offers a dreamlike romance -- or is it real at all?


The Purple Rose Theatre's Welcome to Paradise

Rory (Ryan Black) and Evelyn (Ruth Crawford) trip the light fandango in The Purple Rose Theatre's production of Julie Marino’s Welcome to Paradise. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

In Julie Marino’s play Welcome to Paradise, a young man who has been backpacking through Europe helps an elderly woman who is having difficulty at the airport. Rory doesn’t just help Evelyn to her cab. He accompanies her to her beach house on the fictional Caribbean island of St. Sebastian, a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere. Exhausted, he tries to find an inexpensive place to spend the night, but accommodations are costly in paradise. She invites him for the night.

He stays a good deal longer. He rearranges her flowers. He rearranges her furniture to better see the sunset from the couch.  And just by being there, he rearranges her life. 

In a detailed and nuanced performance, Ruth Crawford embodies Evelyn, at turns feisty and flirtatious, basking in the attention of an attractive fellow as young as her grandson who caters to her needs before she knows she has them. Ryan Black is a fine Rory, thoroughly at home in Evelyn’s home and life.

Evelyn has three children, but she is separated from each, either by distance or emotional distance. It’s not surprising that she would want to have a young person in her life. Rory is alienated from his own parents and may need family. But is this relationship one of parent-child? Is it becoming erotic? Or is this a play about strangers who forge a wonderful relationship that isn’t a love affair, isn’t a traditional family relationship or friendship, just simply is and doesn’t demand definition?  

When Evelyn’s son, Greg, arrives with his family for an unexpected visit, nothing penetrates the bond between Evelyn and Rory. When Greg finds Rory living in his mother’s home -- in his home, as he sees it -- he is ready to call the police. 

The play might have been a realistic drama that asks questions about elder abuse. Greg is obnoxious and insensitive to his mother’s feelings, but is he wrong? We could ask if Evelyn is the victim of a con artist, out to get her assets. (Why are they both reading a murder mystery when they meet?) But we don’t. 

This is a comedy, and as staged by Michelle Mountain, it asks us to dream with Evelyn. It unravels much like a novel written from a strong point of view -- in this case, Evelyn’s. Characters who intrude on her view are discounted, and it’s left for the audience to guess whether we have a reliable or unreliable protagonist. That’s best done a day or two after seeing the play. If you let this delightful production wash over you, you’re in for a wonderful dreamlike evening of theater.  

As written, some of the characters are a little flat, but these actors bring dimension to them. Paul Stroili lets us see he is hurt by his mother’s rejection -- was that a real tear? -- while playing the bombast nonstop. Rhiannon Ragland, always a pleasure to see on The Purple Rose stage, is his disenchanted wife, and Meghan VanArsdalen his seductive daughter.  They are dressed appropriately by Suzanne Young for their stay in the home Barley H. Bauer creates for them, lit by Noele Stollmack with properties by Danna Segrest that include original paintings by Hugh Maguire. Sound design by Tom Whalen.

Probably the most important thing a not-for-profit theater can do is take a chance on new plays. Broadway productions cost a good deal more to mount, so every play audiences see in the country’s largest theaters have been developed in the smaller ones. These productions give playwrights a chance to develop their work and their talent and give audiences the rare experience to respond to something entirely new. 

Under the artistic direction of Guy Sanville, The Purple Rose has been doing an exceptional job of creating new work that often goes on to productions outside of Michigan. We’re in for a treat next season when the Rose offers four world premieres, three of them by the top-notch playwrights Carey Crim, Jeff Daniels, and David MacGregor. Lauren Knox, a fine actor, is on the boards, too, with her first full-length play.   

Davi Napoleon is a theater historian and freelance arts journalist.

“Welcome to Paradise” continues at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea, through August 31. For tickets and more info, call 734-433-7637 or visit purplerosetheatre.org.